Saturday, October 15, 2005

Tree-Bowered Streets, Brownstones, and 35,000 Dachshunds

TO CONTINUE MY PREVIOUS line of thought, Chelsea represented quite a change of scenery for me once my company moved just about 9 months ago today. I had been in the area a few times for the WFMU Record Fair, which is held at the Metropolitan Pavilion on W. 18th Street. I had noted the differences on my previous, twice-yearly visits to the hall, but now, I was immersed in them.

One immediate difference was the dogs! Seemingly hundreds of them. My area of Midtown did have some residential space, but Chelsea's streets are lined with gorgeous old brownstones and peppered with new condo developments. Families, singletons, and those lucky enough to labor at home. And with these folks came companion animals, at least six or seven of which I would encounter while walking to and from the PATH station.

The only critters I ever saw in Midtown were Seeing Eye dogs and an NYPD bomb-sniffer, with a police horse (or its capacious scat) for occasional color. Here, however, I was treated to a comparative parade. Mostly smaller dogs. Dachshunds still rank as the most frequent, followed by Chihuahuas. This confuses me. You pay a couple of Gs a month, or in the high six figures if you're buying, to obtain housing in a peaceful neighborhood of the greatest city in the world. fully aware that a metropolis this size carries the risk of infestation, and you buy a dog that —through sleep-blurred or hungover eyes — looks like a rat? But still they come, tethered on delicate leashes, shivering in the cold morning air (cold for them being a relative state — we're talking summer), bug-eyed Peter Lorre dogs sniffing hyperactively at the pavement six inches below.

Sometimes I witness an amusing tug-of-war between these dainty little hounds and their dainty little owners. One one side is the dog, perhaps a miniature pinscher or a Chihuahua, in any case weighing less than even a child's bowling ball, stretching the leash taut in an effort to keep sniffing one particular spot of vegetation, legs at a 45ยบ angle to the ground. On the other is the owner, a gym-toned, close-shaven man gently trying to coax his dog into picking up the pace. We're talking about a dog that even I, in my desuetude, could snatch up and take 95 yards for a touchdown. No matter — the owner doesn't want to aggravate his faithful hound by taking him for a drag.

Even more surprising are my encounters with people walking huge dogs. We all know that real New York apartments are not as roomy as Jerry Seinfeld's or Elaine Benes's . . . more like Crazy Joe Davola's. Are these creatures sleeping on Murphy beds like Thirties gumshoes? Crashing on the couch like leftover party guests? When I do actuall spot one of these monstrous canines, I become obsessed. I once walked two blocks out of my way to follow a man escorting an Irish wolfhound. I stood on a corner amid falling snow to observe a Great Dane loping along with his tiny female owner, wondering if she might simply hop on its back and spur it along like a stallion. The most hilarious sight was another wolfhound-sized dog being led along with some far tinier dog, which at one point parked itself directly below the larger animal, as though it sought shelter from the morning sun. I assumed it picked up this trick during a rainstorm — an instinct that might have served it well during this past week.

With my observation of the higher dog population in my new work environment, came the sheer sense of peace as compared to the bustle of Midtown. 14th Street was lively, surely, being one of the few two-way crosstown roads in Manhattan. But walk two blocks uptown and you're in a quieter realm. True, when I first came to the area the trees were bare of their sound-deadening leaves, and the horns of Seventh or Eighth Street weren't too far away. But you could sit on the stoop of one of these brownstones and relax for a spell. You didn't have clouds of tourists wandering by in confused knots, or yelling into cellphones. You never had protesters chanting and being herded into sawhorse pens by irate cops, or masses of teens shrieking beneath the windows of MTV's Times Square studio.

It is New York on hold . . . New York slooooower, sleepier, more at tune with a normal pace of life.

One powerful incentive to being in south Chelsea is the proximity to Greenwich Village. Even in the bitter winter we faced, I tried to sneak out for short expeditions into the upper fringe of the Village. Only the imminent crystallization of my finger blood forced me back under cover. Oh, that and the paycheck. I would wander, at my rarely seen slow walking pace, among tiny hair salons, corner bookstores, pet-need shops, amusingly named gay bars, and tempting confectioners.

Another fine feature is a little strip of water I like to call the Hudson River. I am lucky to live on a coastal part of the United States, but with the Hudson rolling by a mere 30 minutes from my home, I have become more of a river person than a beach one. (Or as we say in New Jersey, the Shore.) I had a fantastic view of the Hudson from my southwest-corner window at the Midtown office, which represented the only reason I regretted leaving that site. From 36 stories up, in a corner that in a sane universe would have gone to a ranking officer, I could see from the Statue of Liberty to middle Edgewater, New Jersey, and all the way out to Garrett Mountain and the twists of Route 46 as they passed the Route 3 intersection. But I also had a front-and-center seat on all the river's doings. Whitecaps in the windy prelude to hurricane arrivals. Ice floes inching down from Canada in the dead of winter. The brooding flattop of the USS Intrepid. Our nation's naval might in grey steel during Fleet Week. Cruise ships departing for tropical climes, or returning with a tired but happy contingent of passengers.

From Chelsea, however, I can gaze on this mighty waterway at eye level, on a more human scale. It's only a couple of blocks through the Meatpacking District and across the West Side Highway to get to the bike and walking path that edges the Hudson. Amid cyclists and, yes, more dogs, I can sit and watch sailboats cut lazy paths along the water . . . barges pulling loads to upper New York . . . NY Waterway shuttles buzzing across the river in six minutes flat (my friends and I timed it once . . . a story for another time) . . . yachts cruising along with their retired owners at the wheel, themselves taking in the grand vista of the river and skyline.

And from this location I can turn around and view New York as well: the rusting but soon-to-be-populated High Line, the remaining factory space that has not been gentrified or demolished, the trees of condo residents fringing the tops of their buildings or their balconies. . . . It is this view, from several blocks south, that made me feel something I had never contemplated. In 2000, when I took a Gotham Writers' Workshop class, I regarded this vista before disappearing into a school for three hours of training. And as I looked at the apartment buildings, the century-old brick and the water towers, the trees and the cobbled streets, I felt for the first time that I wanted to live there — to sell my car, scavenge the fee for a realtor, and move into this wonderful neighborhood full time.

This, for me, is the true difference between Midtown and Chelsea, for me. No matter how many times I was there, regardless of spectacle or occasion, Midtown always felt like a transit region, not a place where I would stay fixed . . . a conduit that I would traverse, even though it was surrounded by residential regions. Chelsea, however, felt like a home, tugging at my heart and whispering in my ear to rent a van and relocate. I didn't took it seriously, and in all likelihood never will, if only for the reason of my not wanting to give up my car (to say nothing of the near-impossibility of finding an affordable apartment without a roommate on my salary!) . . . but I could feel that pull, which has called out to so many thousands of out-of-towners with dreams of making it in the Big Town.

I have returned to that spot on the river, and just looked at New York, to see if I still had that same feeling. Sometimes I have. It has encouraged me, because it tells me I am still capable of change and growth. Just the antidote for someone who is otherwise locked up in an office for a third of any given day.

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